Biographies & Memoirs


Chapter 19

Falling Down and Getting Up

Two months into rehearsal, I danced on the real stage for the first time. Rehearsals don’t usually make me nervous, since you have to make mistakes in order to fix them. But I had butterflies in my stomach for this one, because the show was filming a short webisode about me, part of a series called Meet the Billys. It would introduce me to the audience now that we were only a few weeks away from my inaugural performance. Although my name had begun to appear in publicity materials, this would be my first major “public” appearance. It was kind of like that first day in a new school, when the teacher makes you stand up and say a few things about yourself, only my school was online, and everyone in the world could watch.

“A-yup, you should be nervous,” said Kate Dunn, the show’s associate choreographer and, I’m certain, the world’s toughest pregnant Australian ballet coach. She was a fantastic dancer. In fact, she had joined the Royal Ballet in London when she was only sixteen—during the actual miners’ strike that Billy Elliot was based on. More than almost anyone else at the show, she had the job of getting me ready to dance the part. “Watch out for the rake on the floor,” she continued. “And remember to pay close attention while spinning your chair. If it gets the tiniest bit out of orbit, it’ll go all wonky.”

We were in the warm-up room downstairs, below the stage, getting ready. It was a thick-carpeted, very red room that felt more like a lounge than a studio. Kate was putting me through some final stretches and exercises before we went up. She was just about the most demanding teacher I’d ever had, and she refused to sugarcoat anything. I liked her for it, because I always knew where I stood with her. You never wondered if she was faking or going easy on you. But she intimidated a lot of people.

“Watch your turnout,” she said as I went from first to second position. “Don’t get sloppy. I’ll be right there with you.”

I couldn’t believe how completely and totally Billy Elliot had taken over my life. Just today, I’d already had a separate rehearsal with Kate in the morning, then gone to see Joan for vocal practice. And I wasn’t done yet. After they filmed me, I would head uptown to visit Ann Ratray, the acting coach Stephen had arranged for me to work with.

While my lessons were similar to what I’d done back in Iowa, they felt different. Kate didn’t seem like a teacher, and time with her wasn’t like a class. This was my job. I was Kate’s coworker, not her student. Messing up wasn’t an option, because people depended on me. When it came to performing, there were no exceptions for me because I was new or young. As someone said backstage, “There are no child stars on Broadway, just professional actors who happen to be children.”

Children and athletes. That was the other big difference in rehearsing with Kate. My classes had always included some conditioning, but to do the scheduled performances each week for Billy Elliot, I would have to be in the best shape of my life. A typical dance rehearsal lasted three or four hours, and included more than an hour of sprinting, sit-ups, push-ups, and other strengthening exercises. When the house was empty, Kate had us do laps in the mezzanine.

“Doing a Broadway musical is like running a marathon,” Stephen told me early on. “Running a marathon while singing and dancing. Do you know why all the Billys come from a dance background?” he asked.

I’d never really thought about it.

“Because it takes years to get into the physical condition necessary to do this part. We can work on your voice and acting, but we can’t start with someone who isn’t already dance trained.”

As Kate escorted me up to the stage, she peppered me with last-minute advice. “Don’t think about the cameras. Make your movements big. And don’t forget the rake.”

For weeks, everyone had been warning me about the rake. It had nothing to do with gardening. Rather, the “rake” is the amount the stage is inclined. If the back of the stage is higher than the front, it’s easier for people in the audience to clearly see the action. But it’s harder to perform on, especially if you’ve grown used to level studio floors. Like, say, if that’s what you have rehearsed on for the last two months . . .

Raked stages are more common in England, and because Billy Elliot started in London, the stage was as raked as it could legally be. It sloped about half an inch in height for every foot in width. Any more and it would have been too dangerous to dance on.

It was dangerous enough as it was. After they introduced me to the cameraman, Kate led me through a few numbers from the show—“Dream Ballet,” “Electricity,” “Angry Dance.” The ballet numbers were hard, but not impossible. But tapping on the raked stage felt like trying to dance on a slippery hillside. And I wasn’t even in costume, and we didn’t have scenery or props yet. It was only going to get more difficult from here.

“And front, two, three, four.” Kate stood over me, clapping the rhythm, helping me find my way through familiar combinations on unfamiliar ground.

I tried to push other thoughts out of my mind, but I couldn’t find the peace that I needed in order to let go. Worries about the show kept intruding. What if it never got any easier? What if I was just no good at dancing on a raked stage? What if I could never forget about the audience and the cameras? I had only another month—one month—to get ready. Sometimes, when I wasn’t doing anything, I felt a tickle of panic in my stomach when I thought about how soon it was.

“Ouch!” I exclaimed as I fell on my butt again. “Sorry.”

“Yaaaah, that was awful,” Kate said, but with a smile that softened the blow. “Let’s try one more.”

But no matter how many times we tried it, I couldn’t get the tap numbers down. It was like my tap shoes had been dipped in oil.

“I think we have what we need,” said the cameraman after my four-thousandth fall. It was a nice way of saying there was no point in trying anymore. I just couldn’t get it, which is why the Meet the Billys video about me on YouTube doesn’t have a single tap step in it.

“Tomorrow, you’re going to pretend this never happened, right?” Kate said as the cameraman packed up.

“Yeah,” I said glumly. Everyone I knew was coming to the opening in a few weeks . . . what if I wasn’t good? What if I embarrassed myself, or worse, Mom and Dad?

Kate must have read my thoughts.

“Come on now,” she said. “You had a bad rehearsal. It happens. It doesn’t mean you’re bad—it just shows what you’ve got to work on. Think on it this way: would you rather this happen now or on opening night?”

“Now, I guess.” Frankly, I’d have preferred it never happen.

“See, it’s a blessing in disguise.” Kate clapped me on the back. “Now come on, no time for moping. You’ve got an acting session to get to.”

“Anybody seen a Broadway star up in here?” John called from the audience with perfect timing.

“Hey, John!” Half a dozen voices echoed back the words. I didn’t even think to look up, because I didn’t see myself as a star—especially not today.

Everyone at the show loved John. He was preparing to go to college at the University of Iowa in the fall, but he was here for the summer. While Mom started her new job, he volunteered to watch out for me. I was running all over the city multiple times a day, and someone needed to make sure I didn’t get lost.

Yesterday, Meet the Billys had filmed us dancing on Chelsea Pier, which is an old shipping dock along the Hudson River that had been converted into a beautiful park. Being near the water reminded me of Dad, and it felt less crowded and noisy than the rest of Manhattan. The city had all kinds of interesting parts. We’d discovered that we could even take the subway to the beach. Nearly every weekend, we headed to Coney Island, a beachfront amusement park complete with roller coasters, a boardwalk, and Friday-night fireworks. It was my favorite part of the city so far.

“How was rehearsal?” John asked as we headed on the C train to upper Manhattan to see Ann Ratray.

“Terrible,” I grumbled.

“How bad could it have been?”

“You remember that scene in Bambi, on the ice?” I asked.

“The one where he keeps falling?”

“Yup.” I nodded. “I must have eaten stage at least ten times today.” I stared down at my shoes, wishing I could ride the subway all the way back to Iowa.

“Ouch,” John replied. “Well, at least it wasn’t the part with the hunters.” He cocked his finger at me. “Pow! Pow!”

“Ya got me!” I moaned. I grabbed my chest and laughed out loud. John always knew how to cheer me up.

“How’s the acting?”

“Good!” I perked up. I’d never really had acting lessons before, and I enjoyed working with Ann. Her class was very informal. A small group of us met in her living room, which was huge. It was seriously the biggest apartment I ever saw in Manhattan. Every week we each practiced a monologue, or part of a scene. We all watched and critiqued one another, and Ann gave us specific notes to work on for the next session.

Even though Julian had said the key to being a great actor was not to act, I still needed to be comfortable onstage. Every week, Ann helped me become a more forceful, honest presence, while Julian and BT helped me be more relaxed and natural.

“Today I’m supposed to get angry,” I told John.


“Ann’s helping me work on being bigger onstage. I need to get over being shy.”

“How?” John asked.

“Well . . .” I blushed.

“Tell me!” John blurted out as soon as he realized I was embarrassed.

“Last week she made me stand on a chair in the center of the room and swear as loudly as I could!” I felt my cheeks go red. “She made me say every curse word in the show, and more.”

Although some of it has been rewritten, when I first started the show, Billy had to say a bunch of curses. Some were just British slang, which sounded worse than they were. But there were some words in the show that I never would have said in real life.

“It’s not you, Alex,” Ann told me when I confessed that I was having a hard time. “It’s a character. You’re not saying these things. Billy is. Don’t forget that.”

I guess that’s the heart of acting: learning to be natural while being someone else. It’s a strange road to walk. Too far to one side, and you seem fake. Too far to the other, and you’re not acting.

“Here we are,” John said as we got off the subway by Ann’s building. “Mom’ll be waiting when you’re done. Good luck!”

The other actors were sitting on the couches in Ann’s bright yellow living room when I entered.

“Let’s get started,” Ann said, pushing a stray strand of red hair behind her ear. “Alex, you’re working with Mike today. I want you to get in a fight.”

Class always started with improv, to get us warmed up. After that, we worked on our scenes. I liked improv a lot. In fact, it was probably my favorite part of the class, because we did something new every week.

Mike was a big guy, like six feet, and he was probably around my dad’s age. I eyed him as we walked to the center of the room. Without a word, he jumped into the scene.

“What’re you doing here, huh, kid?” he said. Mike was usually a nice guy, but tonight his voice had a mean, ugly edge to it.

“None of your business! I’m—uh—you got a problem with me?”

“Yeah, I got a problem with you!” Mike stepped closer. He towered over me, much like my dad in the show did. I forced myself not to step back. “You need to get the hell out of here.”

“Why should I listen to you?” I said. To my left, I could see Ann waving her hands. More energy, her gesture said. Bigger!You get out of here!”

“Oh, so you want to take this outside, huh?” Mike roared.

“Stop it!” I yelled back. “You don’t scare me you—you—you butthead!”

It was the only bad word I felt comfortable saying in public, but I yelled it as loudly as I could. Mike actually stepped back.

“Well done, guys!” Ann interrupted us, putting a hand on each of our shoulders. “Good job, Mike. Alex, you really pushed through tonight.”

“Thanks, Ann,” said Mike, turning back into the nice, quiet guy I knew from class. “That was great, Alex.”

“You too,” I told him. “You really committed to it.”

Commitment was one of the things we talked about a lot in acting class. If you’re going to do something, don’t go halfway. In live theater, the audience could be all the way up in the balcony, so you have to be big.

For the rest of class, I practiced a few of the angriest scenes from Billy. At the end, Ann pulled me aside.

“You open in a month, right?”

I nodded.


“A little,” I admitted.

“Don’t be.” Ann smiled. “You’re doing great. Tell BT I think you only need to come once a week from now on.”

“Really?” I said. I’d been seeing her three or four times a week since I got back to New York. If she thought I just needed one session a week, maybe I was more prepared than I thought. Maybe this day wasn’t a total failure after all.

“But I want you to continue working on your cursing.” She smiled. “Now go on—your mom got here early and she’s waiting.”

Ann had a sitting room that doubled as a waiting area. When I ran out, Mom was there, tapping away on her phone—she rarely wasted a free minute, and with her new job, she was constantly busy. We had that in common.

“Hey, Alex!” Mom looked up from the screen as I ran in.

“How was your day?” I asked.

“Long,” she replied. “But good.” Her new job was tough, but she loved a challenge. “How about you?”

I sped through everything that had happened, eager to tell her what Ann had said.

“And I only have to come once a week!” I said with a smile. “I think I’m getting it.” After the disastrous dance rehearsal, this was exactly what I needed.

“That’s great . . .” Mom paused, a mischievous smile on her face. . . . Butthead!”

I blushed. “You got here really early, huh?”

“Yup,” said Mom. “Early enough to hear you be excellent. I’m so proud of you Alex, and I know your dad would be too.”

I smiled the whole way home. Bring on Broadway. I was ready.

Well, almost.

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